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Conner’s offense, Strath Haven’s defense turn back Marple

NEWTOWN SQUARE >> Two minutes into a tight second half Tuesday, the Strath Haven defense that had backstopped five straight wins made what could’ve been a crucial error.

With Marple Newtown surprisingly dominant at the faceoff X, defenseman Michael Scott’s two-minute, locked-in penalty for an illegal body check could’ve been a turning point for the Tigers. Instead, the rest of Haven’s defense made the momentum shift in its favor.

Strath Haven goalie Will Brake, center, blocks a shot from Marple Newtown’s Christian Xitas as the Panthers’ Anders Camp, right, closes in. (Digital First Media/Robert J. Gurecki)

Strath Haven goalie Will Brake, center, blocks a shot from Marple Newtown’s Christian Xitas as the Panthers’ Anders Camp, right, closes in. (Digital First Media/Robert J. Gurecki)

Alex Viola cashed in on the man-advantage to give Marple a brief lead, but Strath Haven killed the rest of the infraction and rattled off the game’s final six goals in an 8-3 Central League win.

Everything pivoted on the Scott penalty, 2:02 into the third quarter with the game tied at 2. Viola capitalized within 26 seconds, ripping a feed from Alex Funk past goalie Will Brake. But that’s all Strath Haven’s defense yielded, and 2:12 after the man-down expired, Haven led thanks to goals by Jack Borbee and Jake Ross, the latter in transition, 18 seconds apart.

“We’ve given up maybe three man-down goals all year, or something like that,” long-stick midfielder Noah Frantz said. “We’re pretty confident man-down. They got one. It’s tough, it was a pretty good shot from outside. But our man-down is pretty solid most of the time, so we’ve just got to battle past it.”

The full potency of the Panthers defense was on display. Frantz was the demon on the ground, pocketing five groundballs. Anders Camp marshaled the defense, leaving Brake a manageable array of shots, 10 of which he turned into saves.

Even with faceoff man Hunter Mazur having an uncharacteristically tough day at the X against Jake Huey (9-for-14), the Panthers’ active defense hounded every Marple zone exit and caused turnovers aplenty.

That gave the offense time to get into gear. Borbee’s goal at 6:04 of the third was the Panthers’ first even-strength tally. They added another man-up tally later in the frame, Jeffrey Conner’s second of three goals on a five-point day.

Early on, Marple Newtown’s tactics were effective. They used a short-stick to shut off Conner, denying him possession, and sought to suffocate the game with deliberate, extended possessions. Eventually, Haven (6-0, 3-0) deciphered the weaknesses and made the adjustments.

“I think we have to move off ball more,” Conner said. “We have to set more picks. Against a stronger team, if we’re getting shut off like that, that’s going to be a problem. … If they’re going to slide early to me, we have to have that second person off ball cut down toward the goal.”

The goal that sealed the win was a perfect example, Conner cutting from behind the net and finding Sam Mutz (two goals) dashing toward the crease to make it 6-3 with eight minutes to play. Will Huestis scored in transition a minute later, then Conner succinctly crept out from behind the net with two minutes to play and deposited one past Eric Carrigan (11 saves) to set the final margin.

Strath Haven’s Jeffrey Conner, right, gets a hug from teammate Jake Ross after scoring one of his three goals in the Panthers’ 8-3 win over Marple Newtown. (Digital First Media/Robert J. Gureck)

Strath Haven’s Jeffrey Conner, right, gets a hug from teammate Jake Ross after scoring one of his three goals in the Panthers’ 8-3 win over Marple Newtown. (Digital First Media/Robert J. Gureck)

With the ball, Marple (4-3, 0-3) made too many mistakes to notch its first league win. They controlled tempo effectively in the first period, with Zach Faust and Jake Long getting on the board. But the Tigers were outshot, 31-12, over the last three quarters, including 19-6 after half.

“We were just relaxed on offense,” Viola said. “Before the game, we said we’ve got to spread it around at least four or five times before we go to the cage. Our term for Marple lacrosse is ‘we’ goals, not ‘me’ goals, so we really thought of that. But then we couldn’t keep it up.”

Ratcheting up the defensive intensity has Strath Haven off to its best start in at least a decade, earning the Panthers plenty of attention as the only unbeaten in a league full of District One title contenders.

That onus is just fine with Conner.

“We’re confident with what we have,” he said. “If teams want to look at us with a target, that’s good for us. We’ll just keep playing our game and try to win.”

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